Luisa Fabbri, the owner of Contessa Collections on S. Lake Avenue in Pasadena, left her corporate job in her hometown of Florence, Italy and landed in California twenty years ago. When I went to meet with her to discuss the two shops she owns and operates, I unknowingly walked into an impromptu classroom where the discussions ranged from health to industrialization to immigration to philosophy and everything in between. This seems to be Fabbri’s way: She believes, as I believe, that education is a kind of skeleton key that opens the doors to communication, health, and happiness.
The primary lesson that afternoon was about olive oil, though the passion with which Fabbri speaks—and the wealth of knowledge that springs from her—applies to every item she carries, and presumably most everything she does. In explaining one of her products to a client, she goes through the brief ingredient list and describes to him the source of each ingredient. Where it grows, how it’s processed and by whom, and why it’s used the way it is. Fabbri is a boutique importer who maintains extremely close relationships with all of her vendors, and she has the utmost confidence in the quality and integrity of their products.
Eighteen years ago, when she first opened Contessa Italian Home Collection, Fabbri carried mostly home goods. But as time went on, the economy changed, and Fabbri changed, and it became apparent that her heart and her clients’ hearts were more invested in food than in pottery and the like. Food is visceral and emotional, and the decision to become more food-focused changed the business completely. Fabbri humbly explains, “I got too old not to be doing the thing that brings me joy…[As immigrants,] the first thing we lose is our language…and the last thing we lose is Grandma’s recipes. The food is what stays. Food is what unites people.”
Once the store was stocked with rare Italian food imports, the demand continued to grow, and Fabbri opened up a second store front a few doors down. What began as Contessa Chocolate Collection is now a full service cafe dedicated to serving food made with the same passion and integrity that permeates all aspects of Contessa Collections. There isn’t a written menu to peruse; instead the menu gets chosen each morning, and is made up of ingredients that, “won’t offend the olive oil.” Fabbri will always take the time to lovingly explain why your food was prepared the way it was, why each ingredient was chosen, and how it contributes to the dish as a whole. Taking a lunch break at Contessa Italian Foods Collection is much more than a half hour away from your desk. It’s a transportive and transformative experience that reminds you of the pleasure of dining.
Enjoying our food and sharing meals with others, taking the time to taste and chew and appreciate the food in front of us is one of the greatest, simplest joys in the human experience. Most of us are lucky enough to be able to take advantage of that joy every day, if we choose to. This is part of why Contessa doesn’t do to-go orders; if you’re in a hurry, call ahead, and they’ll happily have your made-to-order lunch waiting for you when you arrive. If you leave the cafe hungry for more of what Contessa has to offer, ask about their events and catering services. Be forewarned that there’s a “catch” to the catering: “You have to let me talk,” Fabbri smiles, “We always include a lesson and olive oil tasting.” Sounds like more of a selling point than a catch to me.
Contessa Italian Home Collections & Contessa Italian Foods Collections are located at 380 S. Lake Ave, Suites 101 & 111 respectively, inside the Burlington Arcade. The store is open Monday-Saturday, 10 am-6 pm; the cafe is open Tuesday-Saturday, 9:30 am-5:30 pm. For more information about Contessa Collections and to join their mailing list, email Luisa Fabbri at For videos and information about the magic that is Fabbri’s ancient grain pasta, visit www.pastafabbri.it